For University of Tulsa Associate Professor of English Jeff Drouin, studying Modernism goes beyond analyzing what we already know about literature. It is about formulating new questions and challenging what we understand about the period. The Department of English and Creative Writing’s Modernist Journals Project (MJP) offers graduate students, faculty and researchers outside TU abundant opportunities to engage in these fresh scholarly activities.
New England meets Tulsa
Originating at Brown University, the MJP is the first digital archive of literary magazines from the early 20th century that digitizes complete runs of fully intact magazine issues, including the covers and the advertisements, as primary sources that are free to the public. The MJP was founded by Robert Scholes in 1995. TU Professor of English Sean Latham worked closely with Scholes during his graduate studies and became a project manager for the MJP at Brown. In 2003, the MJP launched the Tulsa location, where Latham became the co-director. Latham stepped down from active involvement in 2014 and is now a senior advisor for the project.
Drouin began his work at the MJP as a freelance coder for the project when he was a Ph.D. student at the City University of New York. He became the director of the MJP at Tulsa in 2014. Drouin works beside Susan Smulyen, the MJP’s director at Brown, in order to digitize the texts in Tulsa. Currently, Brown hosts the digital repository that stores the magazines’ data, while TU provides physical texts from McFarlin Library’s Department of Special Collections. This archive includes magazines from all over the world, such as the Little Review, which contains works from influential Modernist authors. Special Collections also contributes works that contain artifacts, such as authors’ margin notes, to the MJP for digitization.
Discoveries through digitization
The MJP has made many discoveries that have enriched scholars’ understanding of Modernism. “Some of the most important discoveries have been the content itself,” Drouin remarked. “The purpose of the MJP was to uncover content that was lost. Going back to magazines during that time allows us to have a clearer picture of authors who contributed that have been left out of the literary record.”
By digitizing fully intact magazines, Drouin and his MJP colleagues at Brown, as well as TU graduate students involved with the project, have been able to reveal and acknowledge oppressed and marginalized Modernist writers who are missing from the current Modernist narrative. Digitizing these magazines also allows researchers and students to experience the texts’ materiality. “By including advertisements and covers, we can see the different social climates of the era and develop a new perspective on the period’s literature,” Drouin noted.
The language of coding
Digitizing magazines entails coding and translating text into XML in order to create an electronic transcript. Coding bibliographic information makes it searchable and sortable. Coding, however, benefits not just users. It also allows Drouin and users of the journal to deploy software to discover patterns and see what authors have contributed to the period through SourceForge.
“The natural language processors find linguistic patterns throughout the language of Modernism,” explained Drouin. “These software have given us data sets to analyze that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Natural language processing also helps us discover patterns that we wouldn’t perceive during the normal act of reading, and to ask and answer questions about the magazines and about Modernism as a whole.”
Opportunities for students
The MJP gives opportunities for both English undergraduate and graduate students. The latter, for example, can undertake graduate assistantships with the project. These students learn electronic editing, text and coding as a gateway to digital humanities.
This semester, M.A. students Danika Bryant and Nathan Blue are working at the MJP to ensure that the magazines are being properly processed through ABBYY, a software used for digitizing texts in order to prepare them for coding. Bryant is currently working through one of the issues of transition magazine, a Modernist journal from the 1920s. “Being able to code again, with results that are tangible this time, gives me a focus that allows me to relax just a bit from my coursework and other jobs,” Bryant commented. “So far, I really enjoy the work that I do with the MJP and I don’t see that changing!”
Blue also enjoys researching Modernism and seeing where the MJP opens up new doors to new theories. “Modernism was born and grew up in these magazines,” Blue noted. “It is immensely valuable to allow people access to see where Modernism really thrived in their original context: these magazines and journals.” Blue is currently working on using OCR software to train the computer to “read” English, so to speak. Blue then encodes the text with metadata. “These skills allow me a deeper understanding of the nuts and bolts of literature in the digital age”.
Involvement with the MJP helps to teach undergraduate students about periodical culture, which is crucially important in literature and media evolution studies. In Drouin’s view, “physical experience helps students to connect with the physicality of the texts, such as paper texture, print quality and color gradients. The physical aspects provide a perspective on the literature and on the Modernist movement that doesn’t come across in the digital surrogate. Some of the texts have marginalia from the authors who owned them and let us see the authors as people who have lived and loved, instead of just 20th-century writers.”
The MJP continues to transform new ways of working with old texts. For example, the project recently launched a new website with advanced functionalities for teaching and researching. Graduate students are also inventing new analytic modes and the project’s data were migrated to a new virtual repository.
These changes are opening up the computational possibilities for Drouin and his team and will allow researchers to extract data directly from the MJP for their projects. The MJP will also shortly release a new set of material from transition Magazine, a surrealist magazine published in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. “My hope,” said Drouin, “is that the MJP and other projects like it will help researchers break free from constraints and create more accuracy within the study of literature.”
If you are intrigued by the work of the MJP or about digital humanities in general, reach out to Jeff Drouin at firstname.lastname@example.org.